RENO, Nev. – The head of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in Nevada is appealing to agency employees to step up and blow the whistle on any abuse of mustangs.
Amy Lueders said that’s the best way to stop horse protection advocates from undermining the agency’s roundup policies with video footage of the mistreatment of the animals and making it harder for federal land managers to win the public’s trust.
“Regardless of title, whether you are a contractor or law enforcement or public affairs, that’s everyone’s responsibility,” she said in an interview with the Associated Press.
In the past year, BLM has been taken to task by its own internal auditors, independent reviews, a U.S. district judge and camera-toting horse advocates.
A BLM task force that reviewed a roundup near the Nevada-Utah line in July found some mustangs were whipped in the face, kicked in the head, dragged by a rope around the neck and repeatedly shocked with electrical prods.
Twice this year, BLM has issued reports or statements pledging reforms to ensure humane treatment only to have videos of new incidents of mistreatment surface within days.
In the most recent case, this month, Ginger Kathrens was pointing her camera at wranglers who appeared to be repeatedly shocking several burros with an electric prod.
The practice, called “hot-shotting,” is used to help move them into a pen or trailer and it was being employed the same day BLM chief Bob Abbey issued a report pledging more changes.
Among other things, the report said electrical prods should be used only as a last resort when human or animal safety is in jeopardy, and that they should never be used on a horse’s head or genitals.
“I thought it was ironic that while Bob Abbey was announcing the reforms I was filming the hot-shotting of the burros,” said Kathrens, an Emmy-award winning filmmaker who is the executive director of the Colorado-based Cloud Foundation, a nonprofit horse advocacy group.
Most disturbing to Kathrens was that officials for the U.S. Agriculture Department and BLM were standing near the wranglers and witnessed the shocks but did nothing to interfere.
Kathrens said BLM officials told her privately they shared her concerns in that regard.
That’s where Lueders said agency workers have to do a better job.
Lueders delivered that message to several dozen employees in a video teleconference involving all of Nevada’s BLM offices last week, saying there’s no excuse for turning the other way if they get wind of any inhumane treatment of animals.
Lueders said, however, that it may be easier said than done when it comes to persuading workers to step up in what is often a controversial and emotionally charged situation.
But she said she believes her message got through.
“I made it very clear that is my expectation,” she said. “We have a lot of committed, passionate people here who care very much about the resource and the animals themselves. You can tell by that passion and professionalism that everyone takes it very seriously.”
About 33,000 wild horses freely roam 10 Western states – about half in Nevada. Another 41,000 are kept in government-funded facilities, including one in Herriman, Utah, that came under fire as a result of more video footage taken by horse protection advocates last spring.
A BLM task force asked to investigate issued a report in September confirming “unacceptable” conditions at the overcrowded facility where horses were forced to stand in a 4- to 8-inch deep mixture of mud and manure. BLM has since moved those animals elsewhere.
It was videotape of a helicopter either nudging or getting extremely close to a mustang in August during a roundup in northeast Nevada near the Utah line that prompted U.S. District Judge Howard McKibben to give BLM a stern lecture.
McKibben granted a temporary restraining order requiring helicopters to keep their distance from the galloping mustangs.
Lueders said it is important to remain open to criticism.
“I think we all learn more from each gather,” she said. “Each gather gives us another opportunity to improve what we do.”
Kathrens is among those who believe BLM officials are sincere and is optimistic real reform may soon follow on the range.
But Anne Novak, executive director of Protect Mustangs, based in Berkeley, Calif., isn’t so sure. She said there should be a moratorium on roundups until the agency proves they have mechanisms in place to guarantee safe and humane treatment of the horses.
“The BLM must take responsibility to train their contractors before turning wranglers loose with whips and cattle prods,” she said.